By Seema Mehta, Los Angeles Times
June 30, 2010

Meg Whitman has spent much of her gubernatorial campaign demonizing unions — arguing that their strength in Sacramento is central to the capital’s dysfunction, pledging to reduce their ranks in the state workforce and accusing their leadership of putting labor’s interests above taxpayers’.

But in recent days, in a fight with the California Nurses’ Assn., the Republican nominee has unveiled an unusual strategy: trying to divide rank-and-file members from their union bosses. It’s either a shrewd calculation that could move traditionally Democratic voters into her column, essential to her effort in the fall — or a risky move that could galvanize a union whose support is vital for Democratic nominee Jerry Brown’s prospects, and whose efforts have been pivotal in past elections.

“His chances are absolutely dependent on the unions. They’re a major source of financing and a major source of ground troops,” said Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College and former national GOP official. But “she offers herself up for counterattacks because the unions could frame this as an effort by a very rich person to hurt the economic interests of hard-working people who aren’t very rich.”

On the campaign trail and in interviews, Whitman blames Brown for allowing state employees to unionize and ties the state’s financial crises to their size, compensation and pensions. She pledges to reduce the state workforce by 40,000 employees. Such criticism plays into voters’ stereotypes of civil servants as lazy bureaucrats with Cadillac benefit plans who are insulated from the recession.

Neither Whitman’s statements nor voters’ perceptions are wholly rooted in fact: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger could fire every single employee under his control, and that would not solve the state’s $19-billion budget gap; many state employees have seen their pay cut 14% because of furloughs, and Schwarzenegger recently proposed paying them minimum wage until the state approves a budget.

But at a time of economic struggles, analysts say, the perception could heighten voters’ frustration against politicians like Brown who are allied with unions.

“There’s a sense that public employees are better compensated than they have been historically, and have protections that private workers don’t have,” said GOP strategist Kevin Spillane. “It’s a growing perception of the last few years pegged to issues of compensation, pensions and the economic downturn.”

Whitman has tried playing hardball with the unions in the past, with at least one apparent failure. In the spring, Whitman’s campaign threatened that if unions fought her aggressively, the billionaire would fund a ballot measure that would require workers to agree before their union dues could be spent on political campaigns. (Measures like that have been advocated by Republicans nationwide because of the financial hit they would impose on unions, which typically support Democrats.)

She did not follow through, and the measure failed to gather enough signatures to appear on the November ballot.

Since then, unions have raised more than $4 million to campaign against Whitman, and are running television ads criticizing her spotty voting record and a controversial Goldman Sachs deal that gave her access to stocks before they were offered to the public.

Whitman’s current battle with the powerful nurses group puts her in contention with an 85,000-member union that has a penchant for the dramatic and though it’s not the state’s largest organized labor group, it has political heft.

The nurses union, which disapproves of Whitman’s policy proposals, have dogged her since before the primary, sending a “Queen Meg” character to mock her outside her events, running ads against her on Spanish-language radio and trying to infiltrate her invitation-only gatherings.

In response, Whitman asked the union for its membership list so she could send each member a letter explaining Whitman’s positions on issues such as healthcare, a request unheard of in prior campaigns and one that would put the group’s most valuable asset in the hands of the candidate. The union declined, countering with an offer to host forums featuring Whitman and Brown.

Whitman turned down the offer. Instead, her campaign bought registered nurses’ addresses through a publicly accessible state database, and sent mailers that said, “Don’t take the union boss’s word for it…. Learn for yourself where Meg Whitman stands.”

The campaign also set up a website, truthfornurses.com, that questions the union’s spending on political causes and notes that its executive director earns $293,000 a year. A video of the “Queen Meg” character, complete with crown and sash, is titled “Do you think this is reflective of your proud profession?”

Whitman said this is the first of many efforts her campaign will make to reach out to voters who do not typically vote for Republicans.

“You’re going to see more of this,” she said after a campaign event last week, later adding. “I felt bad that I wasn’t getting a fair hearing.”

The nurses union fired back on Friday, pledging to rally in front of Whitman’s Atherton home July 15.

“We’re going to fight back because Meg Whitman has declared war on nurses,” said Deborah Burger, a president of the union. “We’re going to make sure she pays for taking on nurses and our patients.”

The union has proved its mettle in 2005, helping to sink a slate of Schwarzenegger ballot propositions. But prior efforts to divide union members from their leaders have been effective in other states, notably Hawaii and Nevada.

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